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Sept. 27, 2002, stands as one of the most infamous days in the history of the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department. It was a day of great tension, when hordes of protesters were in town to shout down visiting officials from the World Bank and the IMF. Amid the commotion, D.C. police rounded up 400 people at downtown’s Pershing Park, arrested them, hog-tied them, and held them for hours.
It was an enormous mistake, considering that the arrestees were doing nothing unlawful, and many of them were simply passing through the park—not out to, like, exercise their rights to peaceful protest. None of the arrests were prosecuted.
Charles H. Ramsey, who was police chief at the time of the fiasco, has maintained a consistent position through the various investigations and lawsuits
that arose from Pershing Park. I didn’t order the arrests, the chief has said in numerous sworn statements. On its face, the claim seems a touch improbable.
After all, Ramsey was on the scene that day, raising the notion that some junior officer was responsible for ordering a mass arrest with the whole world watching. A bit of a stretch.
Actually, a huge stretch if you believe an affidavit filed in federal court last week. The statement by Det. Paul Hustler, a 22-year D.C. Police veteran also on the scene, claims that the boss indeed issued the ill-fated order. On the day of the protests, Hustler’s squad had been dispatched to Pershing Park to assist with crowd control. At the time, the police had surrounded anyone in the park, whether they were IMF protesters or innocent bystanders. Hustler states in his affidavit that officers were ordered to funnel people into the park. Hustler was standing near Ramsey and various police officials at the time. He goes on to state:
“As I walked closer, about five or six feet away from them, I heard Chief Ramsey say, ‘We’re going to lock them up and teach them a lesson.’”
Hustler’s testimony also says there was unease among authorities who were on the scene that day: “Officers started to surround the park and push people back into the park. At this time I along with Sgt. Buethe started to walk away. A man from the press stopped me and said, ‘Hey I’m from the press and I want to leave.’ I called Chief Jordan over and said ‘Hey Chief, this guy is from the press and he wants to leave.’ Chief Jordan came over and said ‘nobody leaves.’ At this time Sgt. Buethe told me, let’s go this isn’t right. And we went to the truck and watched as the crowd was pushed back into the park. At this time, a U.S. Park Police Lieutenant also stated that they were not going to participate in this, and that they were going to pull out.”
The statement by Hustler is now part of the record in the last two class-action cases pending in federal court. Hustler’s testimony had been the subject of a legal war between plaintiff attorneys and D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles, who had attempted to bar Hustler from testifying in the nearly seven-year old case. Judge Emmet Sullivan rejected the motion.
It’s no wonder that Nickles sought to block Hustler’s statement, given the light it sheds on Ramsey’s credibility and the city’s case. The former chief had plenty of opportunity to give his side of the story:
• On Feb. 25, 2003, Ramsey testified before the D.C. Council’s Judiciary Committee. Then-Councilmember Kathy
Patterson asked if Ramsey had been in on the decision to make the mass arrests. Ramsey replied: “No. When I came up on the scene, actually, that was already practically in progress.”
• On Dec. 18, 2003, Ramsey conceded during a D.C. Council investigatory hearing that he approved of the decision to arrest everyone in Pershing Park.
• On Sept. 18 and 19, 2007, Ramsey was deposed as part of the class action lawsuits stemming from Pershing Park. He reverted back to previous denials. He said: “I did not order any arrests at any scene during the course of that day.” Even when confronted with his testimony before the D.C. Council, Ramsey continued to deny that he had approved the mass arrests.
The reliability of Ramsey’s testimony, moreover, isn’t even the central drama in the case. That would be Sullivan v. Nickles.
A little background here: Lawyers for the plaintiffs have complained over and over about the lack of cooperation from city officials in the Pershing Park cases. They’ve charged that the administration has destroyed evidence and dragged its feet on depositions. On Nov. 17, Sullivan confronted Nickles on his recent efforts to stop depositions, ordering that they proceed as scheduled. He also warned that there would be serious penalties levied against the District if it failed to cooperate: “If any depositions are canceled, I’m going to start imposing fines of $1,000 per day for any depositions that the City sua sponte [of one’s own will] cancels, and I will impose additional sanctions as well.”
With that, Sullivan turned to the attorney general: “Mr. Nickles, you’re playing games with the wrong judge.…I’m telling you, you’re playing games with the wrong judge.”
Nickles responded with a vague defense that his wide-ranging protection orders and stall tactics were “justifiable.” He then couldn’t help but jab plaintiff attorney Jonathan Turley: “The manner in which Mr. Turley continues both to play in the press and before the judge the personalization of this matter—I have brought in a team of very good lawyers who are seeking appropriately to present reasonable arguments.”
Sullivan did not buy Nickles’ defense. He replied: “I didn’t put any limitations on discovery, and I’m very concerned about what’s taken place over the last several years. I’m very concerned that arguably there’s been noncompliance with court orders. Has it been willful? I don’t know, but we’re going to find out.”
Sullivan raised the prospect that the U.S. Attorney’s Office may have to get involved. If evidence has indeed been destroyed, he said that he would refer the matter there or to the Department of Justice for a criminal investigation. “I’m not playing games with this,” Sullivan said again.
Nickles told the court that Judge Stanley Sporkin would be filing a report that would address any missing evidence. He made clear that the report would be made public.
Then Nickles brandished a well-worn lawyerly complaint. He said to Sullivan: “Counsel and particularly in the Chang case [that means Turley] have waged a war in the press about the District’s conduct. That is not appropriate.”
Sullivan rejected the argument: “It’s not that they waged a war in the papers,” he told Nickles. “They filed pleadings. They filed pleadings, and the press is going to pick up on the pleadings, and the press is going to pick up on your own statements.”
OAG attorney Monique Pressley narrowed the city’s gripe with press coverage: “With respect to the releases to the press, actually counsel’s e-mails—my e-mails have been released to the City Paper and were part of a blog.”
Pressley’s plea didn’t impress Sullivan. He reiterated that the plaintiffs lawyers were entitled to discovery and then added a new twist: The District would be entitled to “zero discovery.” “Your discovery is over,” he added.